The White House
Office of the Vice President
Remarks by the Vice President to the Rabbinical Assembly Leadership
Westin Perimeter North
11:12 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Rabbi, thank you for that warm introduction.
As has been observed, I’ve been doing this job in high public office for a long time. (Laughter.) As a matter of fact, I’ve held high public office longer than I was alive before I held high public office. (Laughter.) And when I kidded with you and bless my -- the reason they were laughing, Rabbi, when you said 36 years, I did what my mother would -- she’d say, oh, God bless me for that. (Laughter.) Well, at any rate -- (laughter) -- I’m honored to be back with you.
And look, folks, all those years you get a chance to speak to a lot of audiences. And as diverse as the rabbi makes you out to be, and you are, it’s really a wonderful thing in my profession when you get to speak to a group of people who you admire, who you in fact agree with on every basic strategic issue.
I’m going to talk to you a little bit about Israel today. But I want you to know I know that your good work and your concerns extends far beyond Israel. I want you to know I’m aware of your leadership, which I’ll reference in a moment, about matters of domestic concern, of civil rights and civil liberties, about recognizing the dignity of every American. And I really mean this sincerely when I say I’m proud. I’m proud to be standing before you.
I think that, Rabbi, your introduction was a little too generous, but I’m delighted to accept it. (Laughter.) I also want to acknowledge Rabbi Julie Schonfeld. And when the Rabbi said you may not remember I was there, I immediately remembered Julie was there. It took me a minute to remember the Rabbi was there. (Laughter.) I have to admit it. As we say in my religion, mea culpa, mea culpa, mea maxima culpa. (Laughter.)
Julie, you’ve served the Rabbinical Assembly with distinction as executive vice president since 2008. And you’ve blazed an important trail as the first woman to serve as a top executive of an American rabbinical association. (Applause.)
Folks, it’s a great honor to be invited to speak today to such a distinguished group of women and men who, to paraphrase the late Rabbi Joseph Agus, men and women who are guided by the twin lights of conscience and intelligence. That is an important and critical component, an ingredient we so desperately need right now in both our domestic and our foreign policy.
Before I begin, I’d like to start by asking you to join me in a moment of silence to honor the passing of Benzion Netanyahu -- a historian, an activist, a steadfast defender of the state of Israel and of course the father of Bibi, a friend of mine for the last 40 years. I have a picture I signed for Bibi years ago when I was a senator. I said, Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you. (Laughter.) And he and I have truly been close friends for a long, long time.
And when I called to speak to him about his dad’s passing, typical Bibi he started recounting his encounters with my dad and talked about my dad. And so, I’d like to ask you for a moment of silence on behalf of his father.
(A moment of silence is observed.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I don't think -- I think there are few families who can match the service that the Netanyahu family has made to protect and defend their beloved Israel. Some of you in this room have stood with Israel side by side since back in 1948. None of you women are old enough, but a lot of you men were there. (Laughter.)
And although I was not raised in the Jewish tradition, at an early age I was educated about oppression and genocide that have been visited on the Jewish people for 5,000 years and the historic ties between the Jewish people and the land of Israel. I learned all this at my father’s dinner table. My father was a gentle man. My father was a decent, honorable man. And our dinner table was a place where you sat down to have discussions and incidentally eat.
And I remember my father -- literally, my father when I was a young kid in the ‘50s, still in grade school, talking to my mother and sort of raving about how could there be anybody in the Jewish community who could oppose the establishment of the State of Israel. How could that be? My father educating me, as much as he admired Roosevelt, why did we not bomb the railroad tracks? My father -- the first time I ever heard the phrase “never again” was from my father.
Our Jewish friends in Delaware referred to my dad as a righteous Christian, and he was. And he taught me, and taught our whole family without vigilance, without the safe haven of the State of Israel, the horrors of history have the ability to repeat themselves.
And, ladies and gentlemen, it was no surprise to my friends when I entered the Senate as a 29-year-old kid, even though I was from a state that had less than a percent of the population that was Jewish, I got immediately deeply involved right away in the policy toward Israel. I had great mentors. I had guys like Abe Ribicoff and Jack Javits and Frank Church and people who -- Hubert Humphrey, people who literally were my mentors. That is literal. That is not a metaphor. It’s literal. They were my mentors, because I was the young kid. I was like the only woman or the only African American. I was the young kid, the youngest by 10 years, put on the Foreign Relations Committee -- the youngest by probably 35 years.
And they literally took me with them on trips and they filled out my resume. They filled out my education. And, folks, I have to acknowledge that my commitment was driven by an overwhelming sense that not only did the United States and all the West as a matter of historical obligation, of a moral obligation to the State of Israel, the decision that Harry Truman made and America made, in my view, carried with it immense obligations.
But beyond that, I have believed from the outset that as my tenure as the United States senator, what I told an audience in Tel Aviv about a year and a half ago, that American support for Israel’s security is not just an act of friendship and a moral obligation. It’s in the fundamental national interest of the United States of America. (Applause.)
No one has ever doubted I mean what I say. The problem is I sometimes say all that I mean. (Laughter and applause.) But I have said repeatedly, and on occasion gotten heat from it, were there no Israel, we’d have to invent one. Were there no Israel on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean, we would have to invent one -- a democracy -- a democracy for all its failings, all its shortcomings just as ours, a democracy, a democracy. (Applause.)
It is the flagship -- it is the flagship of democracy in that part of the world. And in the world of changing threats, challenges we’ve never seen before, it has never been more important and also I believe more difficult than it is today to meet our obligations. Ladies and gentlemen, I’ve watched Israel struggle through for their very physical survival throughout the last 40 years of my professional life.
I made my first visit to Israel in 1973. And one of the high points of my career was within the first year I was there. I had the great, good fortune of sitting in front of Golda Meir at her desk with her executive assistant, the guy named Rabin, for almost two hours on the eve of the Yom Kippur War. I remember saying to the Prime Minister that I thought Israel was still threatened, because I was the first one they allowed to go from Cairo to the Suez, which had just been opened.
And as I was riding that distance, you’d see these great clouds of dust and people would say it was sandstorms. But there was no cloud of dust on the left; there were no sandstorms. And it turned out in retrospect to be the Egyptian army maneuvering, getting ready for war. I remember saying that to her and she said -- what the former minister of interior said, you are a young man, Senator. (Laughter.)
And I had just gone through sitting with her as she flipped the maps up and down, as she went through everything about -- some of you remember, she had that map case behind her, and she was a chain smoker. And she’d turn and she’d flip the maps up and down. And she was telling me about going through the Six Day War and all -- and reading me letters from young men and women who were in battle that got home without being followed by them.
Well, Israel has faced grave security challenges, which I’ll say more about in a minute. But quite frankly, I am more worried today about Israel than I have been at any time in my career because it’s a different struggle. The same old struggle exists, and we have to be vigilant, which I’ll speak to in a moment. But what’s underway today, at least my memory and my knowledge of history, the first full-blown assault attempting to delegitimize -- to delegitimize -- the State of Israel: the most significant assault since the inception of the State of Israel to delegitimize Israel as a Jewish state.
And to put it bluntly, there is only one nation -- only one nation in the world that has unequivocally confronted this effort which is conscious as well as subconscious. At every point in our administration, at every juncture, we’ve stood up on behalf of the legitimacy of the State of Israel. That's one of the reasons I’m so proud -- I’m so proud to serve with President Barack Obama. I mean it. (Applause.)
As a consequence of the long and active members of the American Jewish community, my support for Israel has never been questioned. In the beginning of our campaign I remember being down in South Florida and telling people I would never, ever join an administration that did not share -- a President that did not share my view on Israel, which begins in your gut, works through your heart and then gets to your head.
Well, ladies and gentlemen, the President has been the bulwark against those insidious efforts every step of the way. It began with a well-publicized speech in Cairo, which got a lot of heat because he was going to speak to the Muslim world and the Arab world from Cairo. But in that speech, he made it clear to the Arab world and all the world, he stated that although we wanted better relations to the Arab and Muslim worlds, Israel’s legitimacy is not a matter of debate. And our support for Israel is not a matter of debate. (Applause.)
As recently as this year, the only country to vote on the Human Rights Council this spring against the establishment of a fact-finding mission on settlements -- 35 countries, the only one to vote no was the United States of America. (Applause.)
How many times has the President instructed our ambassador to veto resolutions that were detrimental to Israel? We opposed the unilateral efforts of Palestinians to circumvent negotiation by pushing statehood in multilateral organizations like UNESCO. That's why we stood up so strongly for Israel’s right to defend itself in the Goldstone Report in 2009, when the Gaza War -- when that Goldstone Report was issued, we came out straightforward and said, it’s unbalanced, one-sided, basically unacceptable. And the rest of the world, including some of our good friends, were prepared to embrace it.
That's why when Israel was isolated in the aftermath of the flotilla incident, of which I spent hour and hours and hours on the phone because I was in Africa talking with Bibi and with Ehud about how to deal -- how we were going to deal with it jointly -- we supported straightforwardly from the beginning Israel’s right to defend its national security. (Applause.)
That's why -- that's why we refused to attend events such as the 10th anniversary of the flawed 2001 World Conference Against Racism that shamefully equated Zionism with racism.
It’s often pointed out by my critics that I said years ago that I’m a Zionist. Were I -- I said precisely, I said, were I a Jew, I’d be a Zionist. And I want you all to realize, you need not be a Jew to be a Zionist. (Applause.)
Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a difficult choice. That's why we’re working literally around the clock and around the world to try to prevent steps from being taken to further isolate Israel in the United Nations or in U.N. agencies because the President said this is no shortcut for peace, and it is not a negotiating venue.
Israel’s own leaders clearly understand the imperative of peace. Prime Minister Netanyahu, Defense Minister Barak, President Peres, they have all called for a two-state solution, a secure Israel that lives side by side with an independent Palestinian state, but with absolutely security.
We are under no illusions about how difficult this will be to achieve. And you need a partner to achieve it. You need two people. You need both sides. It’s in all our interests: Israel’s, the Palestinians,’ the Americans’. We all have a profound interest in peace. So we remain deeply engaged with both sides, and as President Obama said recently: While there are those who question whether this goal will ever be reached, we make no apologies for continuing to pursue that goal, to pursue a better future. (Applause.)
And to state the obvious, these actions have not been taken without cost. And quite frankly, ladies and gentlemen, what frustrates me is that some who have asserted, particularly some of my friends in the Jewish community, strong supporters of mine, have asserted that we’re not fully committed to the preservation and security of the State of Israel. At every turn our administration provided Israel with the support it needs. Let me give you a couple of examples.
Despite the tough fiscal times, President Obama has requested $3.1 billion in military assistance for 2013, the most ever. Beyond the record levels of security assistance we’ve already provided Israel, our administration secured an additional $205 million to help produce a short-range, rocket defense system called Iron Dome.
Some of you who are Israelis, well, just talk to your friends who in Southern Israel. Relatives in Southern Israel can tell you that it took down about 85 percent of all the rockets recently coming through. And all those folks who are in the homes and schools and synagogues, how many lives are saved? I don’t know, but it worked. Ladies and gentlemen, just a few weeks ago, the Department of Defense announced its intention to provide additional assistance to this critical system.
We also continue to work with the Israelis on what they call the Arrow weapons system to intercept medium-range ballistic missiles; David's Sling for shorter-range ballistic missiles. U.S. technology, U.S. money and U.S. cooperation.
And we’re collaborating on a powerful new radar system linked to U.S. early warning satellite that could buy Israel valuable time in the event that a -- if a God-awful missile strike occurred.
That’s why I found the criticism of the other team talking about how this new missile defense system in Israel -- I mean, in Europe hurts Israel -- they don’t get it. It’s the exact opposite, exact opposite. It provides early warning. It’s not just about materiel and technology; it’s also about relationships. We have launched the most comprehensive, meaningful strategic and operational consultations, across all levels of our governments, in the history of the relationship.
I can’t tell your rank, so I’m going to make you a general, General. (Laughter.)
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Lieutenant Colonel.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Lieutenant Colonel. Where I come from, that makes you a colonel. (Laughter and applause.)
Colonel, in 2011, as you’re probably aware, there have been 200 senior -- nearly 200 senior-level defense officials who visited Israel, and senior-level Israeli officials who visited their counterparts in the United States, more than ever has occurred in the history of the relationship. Later this year, our nation’s armed forces will conduct the largest ever joint military exercise with Israel. Austere Challenge, it’s called.
I’m proud of our record. I believe that no President since Harry Truman has done more for Israel’s physical security than Barack Obama. (Applause.)
But I’ll forgive you if you think I’m just obviously prejudiced about the guy I work with. But you don’t have to take my word for this. Bibi Netanyahu has rightly said that our security cooperation with Israel, as he refers to it, is “unprecedented.” And as importantly, these efforts have not gone unnoticed by our Israeli opponents.
Which brings me to Iran. We know that Israel’s leadership, justifiably in my view, views Iran as an existential threat to Israel. And make no mistake: An Iran with nuclear weapons would also pose a grave threat to U.S. security, as well. That’s why our policy is not one of containment. Let me say it again. The United States policy under President Barack Obama is not one of containment. Not one of containment. (Applause.) It is straightforward. We will prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon by whatever means we need. Period, period. (Applause.)
One of the great benefits of my long relationship with Israeli leaders is some have become my close, personal friends in and out of office. One who’s in office now is Ehud Barak, the defense minister. When Ehud last came to see me, he brought his delegation of experts and military personnel, and I had my national security team. We looked at each other and we said, let them talk. You and I, let’s go off privately.
And he and I sat in my office for well over an hour. And he talked from the heart about his concerns about Iran. The full delegation and our experts, they sat out in the lobby and they had a good conversation, a meaningful one. But we knew we had to talk to one another, look each other in the eye, take a measure of the man, whether or not he was speaking for Bibi or whether or not I was speaking for Barack Obama.
He reiterated his concern with Iran’s quest for a nuclear weapon, and re-emphasized that Iran posed an existential threat to Israel. And I made it clear to him and I want to make it clear to all of you unambiguously. I told him then and he would repeat it: that were I an Israeli, were I Jew, I would not contract out my security to anybody, even a loyal, loyal, loyal friend like the United States.
I made it clear for the President and me, for our administration that if Israel reached the conclusion based on the facts as they could best determine them, that Iran was on the verge of eliminating their ability to respond physically, to set that program back two to five years, I understood. I understood. We were not telling him or Israel what they could or could not do, because again I told him I would not contract out my nation’s security. And clearly, clearly no Jewish state should ever assume that history has changed so fundamentally that they would do that.
We also discussed that our experts on both sides, their national security people, ours, their intelligence community, their military community -- we’re on the exact same page, the exact same page; the same assessment that Iran does not have that capacity, and that it is some distance away, and that we need to be exceedingly vigilant in monitoring their program and shared information. And we share everything, even those things that could be taken, if they decided to, out of context. As a matter of fact, the Israelis, in some of the information we’ve shared, have calmed us down about what it really means.
The bottom line is Ehud and I agreed that there remains space for diplomacy. The window has not closed in terms of the ability of the Israelis, if they choose on their own, to act militarily. But diplomacy backed by serious, serious sanctions and pressure –- to succeed, though, as the President has clearly stated, on that score the window is closing in the near term. This cannot go on forever.
When we took office -- I want to remind everybody because my deceased wife used to say the greatest gift God gave mankind was the ability to forget -- (Laughter.) And my mother would quickly add, were that not true, women would only have one child. (Laughter.) But when we took office, let me remind you, there was virtually no international pressure on Iran. We were the problem. We were diplomatically isolated in the world, in the region, in Europe.
The international pressure on Iran was stuck in neutral. As a matter of fact, Iran’s influence in the previous six years was growing in the region -- not diminishing, growing in the region. The relationship with Syria was obvious; the use of a staging point for Hezbollah and Hamas was clear. The rest of the region was basically stiff-arming the United States and saying, you need to be engaged more in missile defense. You need to be engaged more in.
And we were being criticized in European capitals for being unilateral. And Tehran’s allies -- and Tehran had allies, they were intimidating their neighbors. And America’s leadership was in doubt. We were neither fully respected by our friends nor feared by our opponents. Today, it is starkly, starkly different. (Applause.)
Iran has one and only one ally in the region, Syria, which is under siege, greatly diminished, weakened as a sure and certain sponsor and a jump-off point for Hamas and Hezbollah. And suffice it to say, we continue to provide support for those in the region who feel threatened and now are willing to step up because they are certain about our -- our intention, our commitment allowing resources to be prepositioned, allowing us to help them in their defense budgets.
There’s an increasingly united concern in the region about Iran and a greater willingness to work together to deal with the threat that it poses. And I would argue that it’s not just because of a legitimate threat, but because of the President’s efforts, Iran is now isolated, and the United States is not isolated. (Applause.)
And by the way, does that mean this will all work and we can go away and say, obviously, they're going to capitulate? No. None of us know that for certain. We are not naïve. But because President Obama understood that by seeking in good faith to engage the Iranians in the first instance, we’re going to be able to engage the rest of the world in joining us in imposing the clearest, most significant, most damaging sanctions in this century and I would argue the latter half of the last.
By going the extra diplomatic mile, presenting Iran with a clear choice, we demonstrated to the region and to the world that Iran is the problem, not the United States. That's why China, that's why Russia, that's why Europe, that's why the rest of the world has joined us in these sanctions. (Applause.) And the President deserves the credit. (Applause.)
I hope by now no one doubts that the President is willing to use power. But the President is smart. Physical power teamed up with tough diplomacy has turned the tables on Iran and secured the strongest unilateral, international sanction in the history with all the powers, as I said including Russia and China, participating. Now Iran is more isolated, and the international community more united in an effort to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon than ever before.
Tehran has deep difficulties with their economy, deep difficulty with acquiring basic equipment needed for the technology to produce nuclear weapon and missile programs. And they are having difficulty just doing normal international transactions. They're increasingly cut off from the international financial system, unable to do the most basic business transactions; in a struggle to buy refined petroleum and goods that it needs to modernize its oil sector and its gas sector. World-leading companies are deciding to stop doing business with Iran. Already close to $60 billion in Iranian energy-related projects have been put on hold or shut down. And as a result of this unprecedented pressure, Iran is back to the negotiating table. They're having trouble figuring how to insure their ships.
That's why they're back at the negotiating table; because it’s biting. It’s biting badly. And by the way, anyone who thinks Iran is a monolith is making a gigantic, historic mistake. The dissention between Ahmadinejad and the Supreme Leader is palpable. They will not both be around two years from now. And my bet is Ahmadinejad is gone. (Applause.)
Ladies and gentlemen, beyond that, the dissention internally is real. We so mistake this notion that there’s this one political monolith.
Look, neither the President nor I are naïve. That's why all these talks are being undertaken and the international community is working with us and is on the same exact page, we’re not releasing -- we’re not doing anything but tightening the screws.
As of July -- as of July, the most significant sanctions on oil will go into effect with the European Union having voted for severe sanctions on the importation of Iranian oil.
Just last month, the President signed a new executive order targeting companies that allow Iran and the only friend in the region, Syria, to use information technology to root out and eliminate voices of dissent. And, by the way, unless Iran changes course, the pressure will keep increasing.
By the way, this embargo is due to go into effect in July. Remember I said it here, and it will be well before the election so you can judge me, it will have a devastating impact on the Iranian economy and force them to think even harder. The purpose of this -- the purpose of this pressure is not punishment. It’s to convince Iran that the price -- there’s an overwhelming price to be paid for pursuing nuclear weapons capability, that the price is too high. And the time is now for Tehran to make good on its commitment to the international community.
And, as the President has made clear, we take no option off the table as part of our determination to prevent Iran from acquiring a nuclear weapon. So, ladies and gentlemen, before I leave this stage, I’d be remiss both as an American and as Vice President if I didn’t thank you for how much you’ve done for this country on issues that range well beyond Israel and foreign relations, issues that are near and dear to my heart, one of the reasons why I ran for office in the first place.
The contributions on these issues could fill an entire additional speech. But just let me mention a few that mean a lot to me personally what you’ve done. You’ve fought to expand health care coverage through the poor and the elderly -- (applause) -- including standing by the Affordable Care Act of 2010. You’ve zealously defended our nation’s cherished civil liberties, and from your early support of the Voting Rights Act, the civil rights legislation when I was a young kid in the Senate, to recognizing the dignity of all human beings. (Applause.)
And as much as any enlightened organization in the United States, you’ve advocated for the most vulnerable among us -- the elderly, the poor, those genuinely in need of help. And your outspoken opposition for dealing with the fiscal problems by placing the burden on the backs of the poor and the economically disadvantaged has been a clarion call. It’s one of the things that’s united you and a lot of my Catholic friends in attacking and taking issue with the Ryan budget, which either way is contrary to the social doctrine that you teach and the social doctrine that my church teaches. (Applause.)
So let me end where I began -- let me end where I began, by thanking you for your friendship and your steadfast support of Israel. You and I know -- you and I know this is always going to be a battle. You know that it requires people speaking up loudly in every single generation, as long as we are a country and as long as the state of Israel exists. Your certain knowledge that the preservation of Israel as an independent Jewish state is in the interest of every Jew in the world, is something you must continue to remind as you do your children, your grandchildren, all who you touch.
And let me end with a story that touched me greatly. I referenced the point, the fact that when I was a young senator, I had the great honor of spending time alone with Rabin and Golda Meir. And after about two hours of scaring the living bedevil out of me -- (laughter) -- with how Israel was clinging to its existence on the shores of the Mediterranean, she all of a sudden changed her expression on her face. She said, Senator, would you like to have a photo opportunity? (Laughter.)
And I said, well, yes, I’d love that. Many of you have been to the Prime Minister’s office, those double doors that open. And you walk out and there’s like -- not a hallway, but -- it is a hallway, but it’s more of an entrance way. And we walked outside, and I was standing next to her -- and no comments to the press, just photos.
And there were about a dozen press people with cameras, television cameras and the flashes were flashing. And without turning her head to speak to me, she looked straight and said something to me -- I thought I was the only one in the world she ever said it to. She looked straight ahead. She said, Senator -- now, I’m standing next to her here. She said, Senator, don’t look so worried, we Jews have a secret weapon in our fight for survival here in this region. And I thought she was about to fill me in on something really consequential. (Laughter.)
And I’m standing here and I turn -- and there’s pictures of -- I turned and went like, what? And without her looking at me, still looking straight ahead -- I’ll never forget it, it was a memorable occasion -- she said, our secret weapon is we have no place else to go. Remember it.
This is the only audience I probably don’t have to say remember it. But remember it. (Applause.) Ultimately, there’s no place to go. Thank you for reminding the world, thank you for reminding our country, and thank you for all you do for America. I love you. Thank you very, very much.
* * * * *
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, very much. I’ve got to tell you a story. This magnificent tzedakah box. I’ve had the great privilege over the years of being presented with little blue boxes -- (laughter) -- as well as a couple lovely tzedakah boxes.
And I want to tell you a very good friend of mine from childhood who went into the priesthood, a monsignor was over at our house. And I have them arrayed on my library shelf. (Laughter.) And he looked -- he knows me well. We grew up. He looked and he said, Joe, I don't see any of what we Catholics -- in your church, when you go in church, you get a box of envelops, which you put in your weekly offering. He said, Joe, I see one -- I forget how many -- two, three, four, five, six, seven tzedakah boxes. I don't see one box of envelopes. (Laughter and applause.)
Thank you so very much. Thank you all very much.
END 11:56 A.M. EDT